Transportation officials are uneasy about the readiness of mass transit systems for the year 2000, because huge New Year's Eve celebrations will send thousands of revelers streaming toward public transportation just minutes after computers make the date change.
If a Y2K bug paralyzes subway nervous systems or the electrical supply that runs trains in cities such as Boston, New York and Washington, operators will have virtually no time to make repairs or warn incoming riders.
French officials will stop all trains and subway cars in France between 11:55 p.m. and 12:15 a.m. to "respond to the anxiety" of passengers, said a statement issued Monday by SNCF, the national train company.
Some U.S. operators, such as the Chicago Transit Authority, will conduct similar pauses. Federal officials think it's a prudent step.
"Rather than take any risk, they feel five minutes out of their schedule, with each train stopping in the station, would be a useful precaution," Mortimer Downey, deputy transportation secretary, said last week at a congressional hearing about the readiness of transportation systems for millennium change.
The so-called Year 2000 problem poses a special problem for mass transit because it will strike at the intersection of two unavoidable realities: the test of Y2K computer fixes at precisely the moment some transportation systems will be taxed by larger-than-usual crowds.
Some older computers were programmed to recognize dates in two-digit format, so the question emerges of what will happen when 1999 -- recognized by those computers as simply "99" -- changes to 2000. Computers may malfunction and think the clock has been set back to 1900 instead of forward to 2000.
A Federal Transit Administration survey found that of 550 federally funded operators -- including bus, subway and commuter rail providers -- all but four said they are either Y2K compliant or have contingency plans. The remaining four, all in Puerto Rico, either did not respond or responded incorrectly.
Major subway operators insist they and their equipment suppliers have done all the tests they can do. Privately, some say they're not sure about the reliability of their electricity suppliers.
Amtrak and commuter railroads also insist their trains are ready, but many have their own Achilles heel: They operate on tracks owned by freight railroads. The four largest freight lines in the country -- Burlington Northern Santa Fe, CSX, Norfolk Southern and Union Pacific -- won't report their Y2K readiness until next week.
Rail experts say the public should not worry, since older subway cars and many locomotives are not computerized. Equipment such as grade crossing signals is tripped not by time and date information but by mechanical switches thrown by an approaching train.
Yet last month, Washingtonians got a hint of their subway's vulnerability. For the first time in 20 years, a computer that mnitors every train in the Metro system froze just before the start of the morning rush hour. It caused delays of up to 50 minutes.
Metro officials said the problem was not Y2K-related.
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